The shootings of JFK, RFK and MLK, the outbreak of war in Israel in 1967, September 11, the tsunami of 2004 – the moment and circumstances we heard these pieces of news are indelibly etched in the minds of those who experienced them in real time. So, too, do I remember the slow-motion agony of the Munich Olympic tragedy. I was actually visiting Washington on a lobbying trip on behalf of Soviet Jews; a taxi driver was the source of my first information.
Now, more than thirty years later, Steven Spielberg has made a movie "inspired by real events" about the Israelis charged with hunting and killing the masterminds behind the plot. Factually, the movie is a disaster – it is based on a discredited book with an unfortunate name: Vengeance. But as a movie about the corrosive effects of violence on the soul of a man and the soul of a nation, it is exceptionally well done.
I am not a movie reviewer, so you can read Stephen Hunter and Richard Corliss if you want an analysis of whether this film measures up to the storytelling in "ET" or "Schindler's List." But I will unconditionally endorse it as an opportunity to look into your own heart and examine the fantasies you hold about setting the world right when it has done you wrong.
What is most important about the Israelis (and even the Palestinians we get to meet) in the movie is that they are all good people. Spielberg goes to great lengths to show us that the generals, the Mossad agents, the team of assassins and most of their targets are not cartoons. Indeed, they are people of faith in the principles and ideals they hold. Even the family of French mercenaries that seems to play both sides of the money game articulates a doctrine that is understandable, if not sympathetic. What they undertake with a sense of justice soon robs them of the ability to judge.
As the long (three-hour) film progresses, scene after scene emphasizes a truth that escapes the young but is axiomatic for the old: all actions have consequences. Perhaps the most telling moment is when the Israeli hit squad members realize that they are no longer only predators, but also prey. The violence they attempt to depersonalize becomes increasingly and desperately personal.
I saw the film with two other adults, and when it was over, we all agreed that subtlety was not among the merits of the film. We agreed that the last scene – which I won't reveal – was pretty heavy-handed. I then asked my companions what the so-obvious message of the last scene was. The three of us entirely disagreed. It is a measure of the success of "Munich" that the diverse conclusions different viewers reach seem so obviously crafted.
A last word about Steven Spielberg, who certainly does not need me as his defender: give the man a break. He is arguably the most successful filmmaker of our generation, and he has elected to use his exceptional talents to struggle with his conscience, not just to make money. That conscience is dominantly Jewish, and unashamedly so. For that reason alone, he stands out from hundreds of prominent Hollywood types, both in front of and behind the camera. You may like or dislike his conclusions (or the ones you ascribe to this film), but when he tells us "Munich" is "a prayer for peace," I believe him. He seems to know that peace means sacrifice, and that some of the finest examples of humanity must be willing to sacrifice that humanity for the rest of us slugs to have a chance at the elusive wholeness for which we all yearn.
I don't think I will forget "Munich" any more than I will forget Munich.